Utilize the Medium

PDFs are the bastards of the RPG community: tacitly acknowledged but rarely advertised. In general, they are used exclusively only when a product is either too short or too niche to deserve a print run, and are priced as such. When put out alongside a print run, they are the byproduct of the print file process, and still treated as nothing more than an afterthought.

I think this is a mistake. While there is a definite joy in the physical book, PDFs have advantages that no book can claim, advantages that have for a long time been sorely underutilized. Our current kickstarter, The Demon Collective, Vol 1., has just hit 250% funding, and subsequently unlocked the stretch goal that allows me to give the PDF version the full white-glove treatment. Let’s talk about what that means, why it’s important, and how you can do it in your work.

What it Means to Optimize a PDF

To make it more than a Word doc with a different file type, or a digital scan of the print copy. It means to recognize the sometimes-hidden strengths of the PDF format and explicitly design for them, ideally before even starting layout. Lets start with the generals.

PDFs are portable and indestructible. You know how in JRPGs, the protagonist can stow a nigh-infinite number of potions in their pouch? You can do that with PDFs. I have dozens, if not hundreds, of games, supplements, and adventures stored online in my Google Drive, with others downloaded to my phone, tablet, and laptop for even faster convenience. I can carry a library’s worth of game books with me on my phone, a device I have on my person at all times anyways. They take up no physical space and cannot be damaged or destroyed (assuming you have backups or host them online in one of the many free sites).

Say you’ve got a game that uses the triad of RPG material: Player Book, GM Book, Monster Book. You are doing yourself and your audience a disservice if you do not produce high-quality PDFs for them. The ability to alt-tab through multiple books simultaneously on my laptop’s PDF viewer is one that I’ve used many times, and making it easy to do so is a responsibility that falls on the designer.

PDFs are responsive to the reader. Have you ever considered how much we take adjustable zoom for granted? The ability to infinitely resize a document to show us just as much or little as we need, for text to automatically refocus to ensure sharpness at all magnifications? Large-print books exist for a reason, but the market for them in tabletop RPGs is likely not enough to justify a full print run, which are capriciously profitable in the best of cases. But there are ways to accommodate the visually-impaired with a PDF that are simple, responsive, and require very little effort on the part of the designer.

PDF layers can be used to turn on/off backgrounds and visual noise to produce a cleaner page that has higher contrast with the text, making it easier to read. Typefaces optimized for print (not webfonts as, due to arcane mathematics too complicated to explain here, PDFs “draw” more legibly with print fonts) also help ensure your book remains readable at all magnifications and when printed out.

A page from Petals and Thorns: Strangers in Ramshorn. At right, the “background” layer has been turned off, resulting in a cleaner, more legible page that is also printer-friendly.

There are other ways to make your book accessible to the visually-impaired. PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) is a badge of honor indicating that your book conforms to the highest standards of accessibility. This means being fully readable by screen readers such as JAWS (including tables and images!), having high color contrast between text, images, and background, and being properly tagged (more on that in a future article). This can be a monumental undertaking for large books with lots of information, but it’s well worth it to accommodate people who may otherwise have trouble reading and running your game.

PDFs can be interlinked. Think of this as “threading.” If you’ve got a citation or footnote directing the reader to another page, have the text link directly to that page when clicked! Better yet, if the relevant information is short enough, set up a comment that shows when you hover over the piece in the text. If you’re using Indesign to layout your document, the former can actually be done within the document (to prevent it from being undone by revisions and future exports), but Acrobat can do it from any PDF.

Because PDFs are not books, there is no reason to subject your reader to needless page-flipping. Interlink your PDF, and give it bookmarks for easy navigation to specific sections. If you look above to the previous image, you’ll notice a header that lists six different chapters. That header is on every single text page of the PDF, and each of those chapters can be jumped to immediately by clicking on its name in the header. In a book, this would be impossible, but in a PDF, it’s just practicality.

How This All Affects the Demon Collective, Vol. 1

To start, the PDF is going to be fully interlinked. The file size will be reduced as much as physically possible without reducing image quality, to take up less storage space. Backgrounds, borders, and art will all be placed on separate layers, so they can be toggle on and off at the readers’ convenience. The entire document will be PDF/UA compatible. And one more thing: there will be a specially formatted version of the PDF, designed to be printed on a4 paper and folded to make a zine. Some people have been disappointed by our shipping costs, and while we have no way of changing those, we’re determined to provide a way for our backers to create their own physical zine with minimal effort.

Stay tuned for a more detailed look at all that goes into PDF optimization, including guides on PDF/UA compliance, and a detailed rundown of everything we’re doing for The Demon Collective, Vol. 1.

How to Produce RPGs on Nothing A-Year: Fonts

How to produce RPGs on nothing a-year is a series that focuses on the technical aspect of RPG design: the layout, fonts, art, and everything else that doesn’t constitute the actual writing. In particular, we’re looking at ways to create quality products using nothing but free programs.

Today we’ll be looking at perhaps the most overlooked and underutilized aspect of RPG design: typography. Good typefaces are a hallmark of fine press books; why should fine tabletop RPGs be any different?

Before we begin, I’d like to say a word about bad fonts. Like many things in life, there are far more bad fonts than good. Bad fonts are distinguished by a number of things: poor kerning (the spacing between individual characters), a small library of glyphs (many bad fonts only support the basic English alphabet, and some don’t even have numerals), and dubious/blatantly false licensing (the thing that says you can use that font for specific purposes). There are many sites that offer free fonts by the thousands, and as tempting as these are, the vast majority of their stock will consist of bad fonts.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about good fonts, and where to find them.

Google Fonts

If you’re using Google Docs, you’d be foolish not to take advantage of Google Fonts. They have a massive repository of open-source typefaces that can be added directly to a file, and a lot of them are perfectly suited for RPG work. However, the Google Font directory was and is designed primarily for screens, and as such I would only recommend them if the finished product is presented as a PDF. If printed, many of these fonts will lose some legibility.

Editors’ Choice: Roboto, Crimson Text, Libre Baskerville, Alegreya, Fira Sans

League of Moveable Type

The League of Moveable Type is an open-source type foundry that specializes in digitizing older typefaces. Every one of their fonts is completely free to use, no questions asked, and quite a few come with alternate styles like bold, italics, or small caps, which are highly recommended for emphasizing certain pieces of text.

Editors’ Choice: League Spartan, Fanwood, Raleway, Sorts Mills Goudy, Goudy Bookletter 1911, Chunk


Out of all the free font sites, Fontsquirrel is the one I trust the most. While not everything here is free (and quite a lot of it is crap), it at least avoids pirating copyrighted fonts like other, less scrupulous sites.

Editors’ Choice: Questa, Playfair Display, Vremena Grotesk, Libre Caslon


Charis: Charis is based off of an old font called Charter that was designed for screens in the 80’s. Funny enough, it still looks great today, even printed out. Charis also boasts an incredibly large library of glyphs and extensive language support.

Cormorant: With an astounding 45 styles, Cormorant is one of the most versatile fonts you can get for nothing. I set the entirety of Kidnap the Archpriest in various shades of Cormorant.

Roboto: I mentioned this above in the Google Fonts section, but it cannot be overstated how great a font Roboto is. It’s getting closer and closer to overplayed every day, so use it while you can.

That’s it for this article; while the above typefaces aren’t perfect, they’re worlds away from Arial and Times New Roman. With a small-but-dependable arsenal of fonts, even a novice designer can produce amazing work. Check back soon for our next installment, where we’ll be talking about maps.

How to Produce RPGs on Nothing A-Year: Scribus

How to produce RPGs on nothing a-year is a series that focuses on the technical aspect of RPG design: the layout, fonts, art, and everything else that doesn’t constitute the actual writing. In particular, we’re looking at ways to create quality products using nothing but free programs.

So far, we’ve looked at word processors and typesetters, and they’ve done an admirable job with our basic little module. But what if we need something a little more powerful? To get the most out of our free RPG programs, we’ll need to look for a dedicated publishing tool, and the best free one out there is Scribus.

Scribus is as close to Adobe InDesign as you’re going to get without pay or piracy. It’s been quietly gathering momentum for the past decade and a half, to the point where the current state is very similar to paid professional programs. If you absolutely must have the most control over your layout, this is what you’ll need.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Scribus is fiddly to the max, and has its fair share of bugs and crashes. But its method of containing every little design element in frames allows you to adjust anything, anywhere, at any time. Your text frames can be placed and resized individually to flow along with image frames. Tables can be adjusted cell-by-cell. The styles options are more robust as well, allowing for you to set custom spacing before, after, and in between paragraphs, as well as setting up drop caps and other such fancies.

However, I’m a firm believer of the right tool for the job, and for something like Tomb of the Serpent Kings, Scribus is simply overkill. Individually highlighting and changing the text styles individually took forever, and having to resize the columns manually — as opposed to LaTeX, which determines the proper size for each one automatically — took far more time than it deserved. Scribus also lacks a comment/annotation function, so while I will be providing the base files for your tinkering pleasure, the basics will be covered in this article itself.

Click here to download the .zip containing the Tomb of the Serpent Kings Scribus files.

Getting Started With Scribus

The Document Setup screen. These settings can be adjusted at any time by clicking on the “Apply settings to: All Document Pages” button.

Opening up a new file presents the document setup page. Here you can set nearly everything ahead of time — page size, margins and bleeds, page numbering, even automatic hyphenation for justified text. Measurements can be expressed in everything from inches to points (also cicero’s, which I’ve never heard of and never used). I recommend millimeters for a good balance between small adjustments and ease-of-use.


As I said earlier, Scribus handles layout by way of frames. In particular, three types of frames — Text, Image, and Shape — are the basis for nearly everything.

  1. Select allows you to, well, select frames, as well as move and resize them.
  2. Text frames are for paragraphs. They have their own submenu once placed, which will be explained in detail.
  3. Image frames can have pictures placed within them. These can also be adjusted via a submenu. (Tip: get accustomed to the “Adjust Image to Frame” and “Adjust Frame to Image” options. They make resizing a breeze.)
  4. Render frames allow you to place outside tools like LaTeX into Scribus. I’ve never found a use for it, but you’d do well to remember it’s there.
  5. Table is sort of misleading, as all it does is place a number of smaller text frames into a grid format. Though time-consuming (each “cell” has to be manually formatted, and things like lines or color fill added afterwards), it’s an important function for RPG design.
  6. Basic Shapes are your squares, circles, etc. I’m sure you can figure out what these are used for.
  7. Complex Shapes are polygons. You can set the number of corners and rotation to produce some interesting polyhedrons, but it’s not something I use often.
  8. Lines are self-explanatory.
  9. Bezier Curves are lines that you can twist and pull into waves and arcs.
  10. Freehand Lines are hand-drawn. Once again, not something I use often.
  11. Rotate and Zoom are also self-explanatory. Rotate is done on a frame-by-frame basis, while Zoom applies to the whole document view.

Text Frames


Once you’ve placed your text frame and filled it with words, you can access the submenu by pressing F2. This gives you tons of options: setting styles,  adjusting text height, width, and tracking (the spacing between individual characters), and tons of other things that we don’t have space to go into now. I recommend downloading the program and playing around with it yourself; while Scribus has an unfortunate reputation for a high learning curve, it’s also surprisingly forgiving.

Tip: you can link frames together to automatically flow text by pressing “N” then clicking the two frames. Pressing “U” will unlink them.

You’ll notice the “Style Settings” show both Paragraph Style and Character Style settings. Paragraph styles are what you’ve seen as “styles” before. They format entire paragraphs at once, and you can have as many as you want. For instance, in this version of Tomb of the Serpent Kings I have a different paragraph style for sections, subsections, basic paragraphs, lists (which need different spacing than normal paragraphs to distinguish them), and reference text (which needs to be smaller to fit into the three column text).

The Style manager, accessed by pressing F3 as default.

Character styles are different, in that they apply only to the individual characters you’ve set them to. For instance, I have a “bold” character style that I can apply to any single piece of text, regardless of its paragraph style. I also have an “italics” style, and a different version of both for use in reference text.

Image Frames

Images are a lot simpler to deal with than text. Once you’ve created the frame, you can add the image by right-clicking and selecting “Get Image…” This will open up an explorer window where you can navigate to the image file itself.

Don’t be alarmed if your image shows up weirdly distorted at first: Scribus loads images at their native size, though it doesn’t stretch the frame itself to compensate. Simply right-clicking again and selecting “Adjust Image to Frame” will automatically resize the image to fit within the frame. From there, any adjustments to the size of the frame will also resize the image within it.

Final Thoughts

We’ve only scratched the surface of everything Scribus is capable of doing, but what we’ve discussed should give you the ability to create basic documents within it. The more complex aspects — master pages, customized color spectrums, scripts — can and may be explained in further installments, but for now, the best way to learn is by getting your hands dirty.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on layout programs. I’ve got a few more articles in the works that will deal with other aspects of design: fonts, art, maps, etc., that I hope will help any new RPG producers working on a budget to produce stunning, high-quality work. If you have any questions or comments on this article, or if you’ve used Scribus to good or ill effect, let us know in the comments below.

How to Produce RPGs on Nothing A-Year: LaTeX

How to produce RPGs on nothing a-year is a series that focuses on the technical aspect of RPG design: the layout, fonts, art, and everything else that doesn’t constitute the actual writing. In particular, we’re looking at ways to create quality products using nothing but free programs.

Last time, we looked at how Google Docs could be used to create simple-but-effective layouts for RPG modules and supplements. Though you won’t win any Ennies in the style department, the output is serviceable. Today we’re looking at a different program altogether, one that’s much beloved by academia for its customization options, extensive language support, and robust community. Today, we’re looking at LaTeX.

LaTeX is a typesetting language derived from TeX, which has been in use in some form or another for nearly 40 years. If you’ve spent any time in a higher-level math or science department, you probably just shivered in memory of the compiling errors and indecipherable documentation, and I’m pleased to say that all of that is still here. HOWEVER, with a little practice, even a total layperson can be up and running with LaTeX in no time, and, for my money, there’s no better place to start learning the basics of layout and design.

This is because LaTeX allows nearly total control of every aspect of the document, and subsequently requires a hawk-like attention to detail. Images can be moved by the millimeter. Pages can be broken into 7 columns for the first third, then 3, then 1.

House of Leaves was probably not typeset in LaTeX, but it could have been.

What this means is that for the experienced LaTeX operator, almost no design choice is off-limits. The ability to adjust the layout on a page-by-page or even paragraph-by-paragraph basis is incredibly useful if you’re dealing with lots of art or maps interspersed with the text. I first started designing with LaTeX, and while I’ve switched mostly to Scribus and InDesign now, I still break it out on occasions when I need to write up a simple one-page handout or ultra-light adventure. I’ve even typeset an entire 64-page ruleset using it, though in hindsight that was more as a learning experience than anything.

This versatility comes at the expense of learning how to type with a certain degree of separation from the finished product. LaTeX is not a “what you see is what you get” program like Word, Docs, or even Scribus. Instead, it’s written like a coding language, with the bulk of its power coming from the use of packages. Packages are easy to set up (a simple line in the preamble) and most of the common ones come preloaded in whatever LaTeX program you decide to use. Once the package is loaded, you can input commands to unlock those packages and expand your toolset. There’s a package for multiple column support (the aptly named “multicol”), and one for images. There’s packages to change just your header fonts, or the fonts in the entire document. There’s even packages that allow you to draw graphs and lines directly within LaTeX (these are a pain in the ass to use, but they’re there).

I could go over each of these, along with pretty pictures to walk you along, but then this article would be 10 pages long and I’d have to pitch it to Texas Monthly. Luckily, LaTeX has an innate comment system that allows you to see both my code and the output side-by-side. Clicking on the link below will open the document in Overleaf, a web-based LaTeX program that’s perfect for the RPG designer on the go (or at work).

Click here to open Tomb of the Serpent Kings in Overleaf.

That’s all I would have for you, except…

If you don’t mind a few restrictions on your LaTeX experience, Michael Davis (Slithy on dragonsfoot.com) has created a package that almost perfectly mimics the style of early RPGs. It’s called rpg_module, and while it’s not my cup of tea, it’s an attractive and easy way to learn the basics of the system. The PDF documentation here gives you everything you need to know to insert tables, artwork, statblocks, and the package itself.

Do you have any experience using LaTeX to design RPG supplements? Any tips or advice for the up-and-coming stars of the OSR among us? Let us know in the comments section what you think, and join us next time when we discuss the big daddy of all free layout programs: Scribus.

How to Produce RPGs on Nothing A-Year: Google Docs

How to produce RPGs on nothing a-year is a series that focuses on the technical aspect of RPG design: the layout, fonts, art, and everything else that doesn’t constitute the actual writing. In particular, we’re looking at ways to create quality products using nothing but free programs.

Google Docs is the quintessential writing program: web-based, lightweight, and completely free. Chances are, you’ve used it to draft simple documents for work or school, but with a little tweaking it can also work as a rudimentary layout tool. Out of the three layout tools we’re going to be showing in this series — Docs, LaTeX, and Scribus — Docs is by far the easiest to learn; conversely, it is by far the hardest to make small adjustments to. However, for simple modules and supplements, it serves its purpose admirably, and I think we can all agree that low production values are better than no production values at all.

So, assuming you’ve already got your text written, edited, and proofread (tip: if at all possible, each of these tasks should be handled by a different person), all you need to do is paste it into Docs to get started.

Page setup
Page setup, found under File-Page setup…

Before we make any adjustments to the text, however, we should format the paper entire. The default (at least in the USA) paper size for Docs is US Letter, which is a garbage size for garbage documents. The international paper sizes (A5, A4, etc) are based on simple, aesthetically-pleasing ratios and are much easier to make both pretty PDFs and Print-on-Demand (PoD) files. For this module, we’ll be using A4, which is just slightly larger than a sheet of notebook paper. Margins are a matter of personal preference, with some people preferring larger (1″–1.5″) so that they can write in them, and some preferring smaller (0.5″–0.75″) so that they can fit more information on the page. For our purposes, a solid 1″ on all sides is sufficient.

For the rest of the document, well, perhaps the best way to teach is by example. The link below leads to a copy of Skerples excellent teaching dungeon, Tomb of the Serpent Kings, formatted entirely within Google Docs and with full design notes placed as comments within it. Every stylistic and technical choice has been noted along with full instructions on how to replicate them; in fact, downloading the file and opening it in Docs will allow you to adjust everything yourself.

Click here to open Tomb of the Serpent Kings in Google Docs

The Styles tab. Mousing over each entry will give you the option of applying or changing that style to whatever is currently highlighted.

One more tip: to save yourself a lot of headache, learn how to use Styles within Docs. These allow you to quickly format large sections of text with their own font, size, and spacing, and are invaluable to ensure your document remains stylistically consistent.

The easiest way to work with styles is to highlight a section of text and either hit “apply” or “update” next to the desired style. For its faults, this is one area where Docs really stands out against its competition, and you’ll be astonished how quickly you can make a handsome, competent layout once you’ve gotten a good hang of it.

And there you have it. Do you have any experience using Google Docs to design RPG supplements? Any tips or advice for the up-and-coming stars of the OSR among us? Let us know in the comments section what you think.